The ‘Highway Boondoggles’ That the Pandemic Hasn’t Killed

Bloomberg CityLab
Laura Bliss

Fun fact: A century ago, the word “boondoggle” referred to the boxy lanyards that kids weave at summer camp. It gained its other meaning in the mid-1930s, after U.S. news reports revealed that a federal New Deal program was paying jobless workers to learn and teach the craft to disadvantaged youth. President Roosevelt’s critics latched on, and while his administration defended and continued its policies, the term became synonymous with useless government spending.

Nearly 100 years later, arguments over what constitutes wasteful expenditures take on a more existential tenor as the U.S. faces a public health crisis and runaway global warming. Released this month, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group’s sixth annual report on highway boondoggles is an example: It calls out “seven budget-eating highway projects slated to cost a total of $26 billion that will harm communities and the environment, while likely failing to achieve meaningful transportation goals.”

Highways often get greenlit for expensive work because they require engineering upgrades or significant maintenance. The projects in PIRG’s least-wanted list go beyond those basic needs. Like the group’s previous boondoggle roundups, this one calls attention to taxpayer-funded projects set to consume environmental resources, cut through existing communities, and lock in decades of new carbon emissions, for what PIRG argues is little payoff in congestion relief or economic growth. The 2020 report arrives as the ongoing pandemic clobbers state and local budgets and dramatically reshuffles travel patterns. 

The largest on the list is Florida’s M-CORES project, a $10 billion, 330-mile plan to build three toll roads through rural southwest and central Florida. Dubbed the “Billionaire Boulevard” by critics who characterize the project as a handout to developers, a state task force recently found a lack of “specific need” for any of the roads, which would run through environmentally sensitive areas.